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Teenage girls joke about going into cardiac arrest after seeing Justin Bieber. But researchers at Penn believe that Twitter can actually be an important resource for more serious discussions of cardiac arrest related issues.

Two recent Perelman School of Medicine studies look at how social media — particularly Twitter — can be used to help save lives and disseminate information relating to cardiac arrest.

“There are really cool examples about how Twitter is becoming this important tool for public health and for disseminating information,” said assistant professor of Emergency Medicine Raina Merchant. “ What we know less about is what people are saying about things in their day-to-day conversation for time sensitive conditions like cardiac arrest.”

She explained that they wanted to see if Twitter can be used to “monitor what’s happening or understand what’s happening in non-emergencies, so that when emergencies happen we can be better prepared to use the tool to provide up-to-date accurate information to people.”

In the first study, they looked at over 60,000 tweets related to cardiac arrest, CPR, AEDs and resuscitation over the course of a month.

According to Merchant, they weren’t sure if people would be talking about real cardiac arrest events or if most of the tweets would be jokes like “if I see Justin Bieber I’m going to have a cardiac arrest.”

Although there were a lot of these joke tweets, about 25 percent of the 60,000 tweets “had real information … actually talking about real symptoms, locations about events, or articles related to cardiac arrest,” Merchant said.

“That was really powerful in the sense that there is a lot out there that can be used in a substantial way,” said Nina Zhao, a second-year Penn Medical student and one of the study’s researchers.

The tweets were then characterized into different categories depending on whether they were personal, information sharing, or news media related.

“We actually found some great stories — people straight-up shared the fact that a member of my family had a cardiac arrest, we’re on our way to the hospital now, your prayers and thoughts are appreciated,” said Justin Bosley, a fourth-year Medical student who was also part of the research team. “Those things were not common by any means, because cardiac arrest is not necessarily a common thing, but they did happen in there and those are the voices that we’re trying to find” because those are the types of people that could then be provided with medical guidelines and information.

In a second study they looked at what types of questions people were asking regarding cardiac arrest.

“It’s a small percentage of what we found but there is a subset of people who are asking questions about CPR and proper procedures, “ Zhao said. “Some were sort of ‘My grandmother just had a cardiac arrest, I’m in the emergency department what should I ask the doctor?’ Or, ‘I just performed CPR for someone not sure if I did it right what are the right steps?’”

In a future study they hope to look at what happens when they actually send information to people answering their questions related to cardiac arrest. “We want to look at what sorts of messages we can provide to people when they tweet and ask a question and sort of trying to track the information that’s actually useful,” Merchant said.

“We have our traditional methods of like newspaper, radio, television but why not make use of this another avenue?” said Zhao “It’s just a very new medium in the sense that people haven’t really tried a lot with it but there’s a lot of potential there. So hopefully this study and future studies, will elucidate in what ways social media can be used as a tool for improving the health in populations.”

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